What’s In a Name?

by Ruslana Westerlund

Children who speak different languages at home in the United States have been called many things.   Some terms are more descriptive than others.  Here is the list that I have heard in the 18 years of my educational career:

“Those kids”,  “those Muslim kids”, “those Mexicans”, “those refugees”,  “those immigrants”, “those kids whose parents don’t come to parent-teacher conferences”, “those kids who must be confused switching between two languages all the time and not speaking one well”, “those kids who don’t speak English”, “those poor kids whose parents need an interpreter, but we don’t have money to find one”, “children of those migrant workers who come and go”, “”those kids who always speak Hmong to each other”, and many other terms.

Those are terms that have been used by the general public and even worse, educators who subconsciously are engaged in “othering” or distancing themselves from “those kids”.   Then there are terms that are used in language policy documents, in legal precedents, and in Federal and State laws.  They are Limited English Proficient (I know so many Limited Ukrainian Proficient, don’t get me started),  English Language Learners, English as a Second Language Students, English as an Additional Language Learners (EAL term is mainly used in international schools that use English as the medium of instruction), Culturally and Linguistically Diverse, and many others.   One can trace a progression over the past several decades from seeing children as limited to viewing English as their second to describing English as an additional language which is the case for many families who have may have lived in colonized countries and grew up speaking different languages for different purposes in their lives.

You might say that we need terms and categories and labels to set aside funding, to create programming and to focus our energies on “meeting their needs”.   However, I suggest that labels and terms are loaded with agendas that reflect societal values such as “We are in America.  We speak English here”, carry an agenda that English is the only goal of these multilingual children and, as a result, leave an imprint on the children’s identity, i.e., how children begin to view themselves.  The most recent term I heard was to describe semilinguals, children who have not mastered either language well.  A term to describe those children was “Non-nons”.   Here is an excerpt from the book Wright, W., (2010). Foundations of Teaching English Language Learners: Research, Theory, Policy, and Practice. Philadelphia, PA: Caslon Publishing.

“Non-nons is a term used in some schools to refer to Latino ELL students officially designated as non-English-speaking and non-Spanish-speaking.   This designation results from language proficiency tests administered to students in both Spanish and English.  Students who perform poorly on both tests are deemed as not having proficiency in either language.  Teachers often buy into this construct, complaining about students who “don’t know English or Spanish. p. 128”

The photo I took from one of the many books I’m reading these days explains more.   I will also write out the text below if the image is not easy to read.   You may need to double click on the image to enlarge it.

Wright, W., (2010). Foundations of Teaching English Language Learners: Research, Theory, Policy, and Practice. Philadelphia, PA: Caslon Publishing.

“Linguistically, this is an absurd notion.  All normal children (i.e., those without cognitive or speech-related disabilities) naturally acquire and master the language or languages of their speech community, typically by the age of five. p. 128”

“Jeff MacSwan, Kellie Rolstad, and Gene Glass (2002) investigated the non-non issue and determined that the problem is not children with no language but rather invalid language tests.  They found that the tests gave heavy weight to literacy skills and standard Spanish.  Students who spoke vernacular varieties of Spanish daily at home were deemed as non-Spanish-speaking simply because they never had the opportunity to learn standard Spanish or to read and write in Spanish.  They concluded that language proficiency tests, and the resultant non-non labels, create a false and potentially harmful description of many ELL students” (p. 128).

Terms carry meaning and send harmful messages, they redefine how children view themselves.   Language is one of our identity markers.  It’s like clothes we put on with a purpose in the morning.  We choose language purposefully too.   We switch between different registers purposefully to identify with one group or another.  I remember when I first moved to Madison from Minnesota, I learned that there is a special way to talk about Hwy 12.  If you are a local, you call it The Beltline.  At some point, I wanted to indicate that I was not “from here” and I used the term Hwy 12 to describe the route I take home from work.  When I want to belong to the Madisonians, I switch and say The Beltline.  It’s a simple example, but it should illustrate to you that we use language to say who we are even if the only language we are speaking is English.

I invite you to think about what is truly in a name when you talk about your students or hear other people talk about your students.   Instead of looking at children as “walking deficits”, let’s change the way we view them.   While acknowledging the need for English, the language required to access the power structure and contest the power dynamics in place in the United States, and the discipline-specific language to succeed in the schools in the US to be ready to enter college or make an informed choice about a career, we need to change the way we talk about kids navigating multiple linguistic repertoires.  I think we should call them culturally and linguistically GIFTED.  Garcia et al (2008) suggests we view them as emergent bilinguals.

emergent bilinguals


García., O., Kleifgen., J, & Falchi, L. ( 2008). From English Language Learners to Emergent Bilinguals Equity Matters: Research Review No. 1 Teachers College, Columbia University

MacSwan, J., & Rolstad, K., & Glass, G. V. (2002).  Do some school-age children have no language?  Some problems of construct validity in the Pre-Las Español.  Bilingual Research Journal, 26(2), 213-230.

Wright, W., (2010). Foundations of Teaching English Language Learners: Research, Theory, Policy, and Practice. Philadelphia, PA: Caslon Publishing.

Ruslana Westerlund, Reclaiming The Language Blog Author

Ruslana Westerlund, Ed.D.   Ruslana has almost 20 years of ESL teaching experience at the K-12, undergraduate and graduate level.  She is a proud immigrant from Ukraine who is fluent in 3 languages and has a rudimentary level of German.  She is blogging to reconnect with teaching.  


6 thoughts on “What’s In a Name?

Add yours

  1. Dr. Westerlund –

    I very much enjoy your articles. Keep up the good work as we journey towards true multiculturalism in our state. There is still a long road to go.

    Georgia Georgia Irre ESL Coordinator St. Paul’s Episcopal Church 413 S. Second Street Watertown, WI 53094 920-261-2128


  2. Thanks Ruslana,

    I love Dr. Wright’s work! I am honored to call him my colleague at Purdue University! His book is a salient reminder about MacSwain, Rolstad and Glass’ work on the non-nons construct as if students were bereft of a language family or host.

    Non-nons makes me think of the Kibei No-Nos from the Japanese internment camps, specifically those in the Tule Lake, CA where my dad spent his formative years. Among him were Kibeis…. men and women who had been born in the US, but educated in Japan and returned to the US. Many of the male Kibei went on to serve in the US military and over a third were killed in the line of duty.

    Prior to their consideration for enlistment (because they were regarded as enemies and a suspect class), those wanting to serve in the US army had to fill out a loyalty oath. It later came to include all adults over 17 years of age. Two questions were posed that were answered in less desirable ways and led to the double exclusion of Japanese American men and women from the US military and within their internment camps.

    Question 27 asked:
    Are you willing to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?
    Question 28 asked:
    Will you swear allegiance to the United States and end all allegiances and loyalties to the Japanese Emperor and any other foreign government?

    These two questions were troubling and could not be answered in a yes/no fashion, yet that was the solicitation of the oath.

    For question 27, many Kibei felt that if they were to risk their lives at war US, they needed to have a guarantee of their full inclusion in the US upon their return and this question placed them at possible risk of such denouncement. For question 28, many of the Kibei already regarded themselves as loyal and “American,” and denouncing loyalty to the Japanese Emperor seemed absurd.

    When there was a double “no” on these responses, these men became known as the Kibei No-Nos and were incarcerated and separated within the interment camp at Tule Lake, CA. They were considered the most disloyal.

    So, this brings me to consider the driving ideology behind the construct of Non-Nons in relationship the Kibei No Nos. The language of the oath for the Kibei insisted on a forced or binary response of yes/no. It was not open ended with opportunities to provide explanatory rationale, but a swift judgment. However, this rationale was being mitigated within the Japanese communities in camp. Together, they negotiated the short and long term impact of such responses. There was no simplicity in this negotiation, but a rich and complex exchange in relationship to their status as suspects. They were attempting to show loyalty within a context that had positioned them as perpetually foreign.

    For children who are constructed as Non-Nons, their status as language learners is potentially regarded as suspect as if they had purposively chosen no language at home and no language at school. Our lack of awareness about what is being negotiated in quieter spaces of their peers and advocates, demonstrates that we continue to privilege the simplicity of the binary.

    Would a current day reality of the Non-nons be as follows?
    • Are you willing to serve in the US schools in English learning, wherever ordered?
    • Will you swear allegiance to your school and end all allegiances and loyalties to the mother language and any other linguistic expression?

    Although our language learners are not filling out a loyalty oath, are there other devices that we are using to create a binary relationship about their commitment to English learning? I welcome your thoughts.


    1. Hi Trish! Thank you for your comment. I loved the questions you posted that cannot be answered with just a Yes or No. That’s a great metaphor for some of our assessments for bilingual or multilingual students that produce non-nons.


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